"Duke Of Earl" was borne out of a vocal exercise. To warm up their pipes, the Chicago vocal group The Dukays would sing "ah ah ah" and "du du du" in shifting pitch. At one rehearsal, their "du du du"s sounded really good together, so they decided to develop it into a song. They needed their hook to form a real word, so "du" became "Duke." The baritone singer in the group was Earl Edwards, so "Duke" became "Duke Of Earl."
Eugene Dixon, their lead vocalist, put together some lyrics so sing while the rest of the group harmonized. The verses find him telling a girl that nothing can stop him, and she'll be safe as long as she has the Duke Of Earl by her side. Someday, she'll be his duchess and they'll walk through his dukedom paradise.
You can get away with "dukedom" when the harmony vocals are so catchy.
The group got a deal with Nat Records and recorded the song in 1961 along with five other songs, including "The Girl's A Devil," which Nat released as a single. That song went to #64 in July 1961.
Nat had no interest in "Duke Of Earl," so they sold the song to a bigger Chicago label, Vee Jay Records, which was very excited about it. They couldn't release it as The Dukays because Nat owned the name, so they made a deal with the group's lead singer, Eugene Dixon, signing him as a solo artist and releasing "Duke Of Earl" under his new stage name: Gene Chandler (from the actor Jeff Chandler).
Leaving The Dukays was a risk - the group had a chart hit and was on the rise - but Chandler made the right move. "Duke Of Earl" went to #1 in February 1962 and became one of the most famous doo-wop songs of all time. That same month, the next Dukays single,"Nite Owl," peaked at #73. It was the last chart appearance for the group.
Songwriting credits on this one go to Gene Chandler, Earl Edwards, and a woman named Bernice Williams, who managed The Dukays and wrote some of their songs.
Chandler played up the image he created in this song by dressing in royal garb and releasing some singles as The Duke Of Earl, including one called "Walk On With The Duke." As Gene Chandler, he had a number of minor hits spread out across the '60s and '70s. He also started a label called Bamboo Records, which was home to Mel & Tim and their hit "Backfield In Motion."
A group called The Pearlettes released an answer song called "Duchess Of Earl," which hit #96 a month after "Duke Of Earl" topped the chart. The Pearlettes version tells the same story, but from the perspective of the girl.
Sandwiched between The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock in 1969, the doo-wop cover band Sha-Na-Na performed to what was left of the crowd on Monday morning. "Duke Of Earl" was one of the songs they played - others included "Jailhouse Rock
" and "At The Hop
In Stephen King's 1983 novel Christine, this plays on an Oldies station as Arnie shows off his newly restored classic car to his dad.
This was featured in these movies:
King Ralph (1991)
Boulevard Nights (1979)
Don't Knock The Twist (1962)
And in these TV shows:
NYPD Blue ("Large Mouth Bass" - 1995)
Northern Exposure ("Heal Thyself" - 1993)
Cheers ("Slumber Party Massacred" - 1988)
Crime Story ("Shadow Dancer" - 1986)
WKRP In Cincinnati ("Baby, It's Cold Outside" - 1981)